'The Iron Ministry': Locarno Review

Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno


Buy the ticket; take the ride

J.P. Sniadecki's documentary on Chinese railways premiered in competition at the Swiss festival

The parallel tracks of railways and cinema profitably converge yet again in J.P.Sniadecki's outstanding, semi-experimental documentary The Iron Ministry, a pungently immersive evocation of traveling on Chinese trains. Allotted a high-profile debut berth in competition at Locarno in advance of a North American bow at the New York Film Festival, this latest fruit of the American director's ongoing anthropological study of the world's most populous nation is his most accessible effort since Foreign Parts (2010), co-directed with subsequent Leviathan co-creator Verena Paravel.

While lacking the groundbreaking feel of that fishing-boat saga, The Iron Ministry likewise benefits from superb sound design from audio wizard Ernst Karel and at times conjures a similarly stimulating, occasionally disorienting sensory barrage. Nonfiction and general festivals alike will be receptive, and with careful handling the film could even justify bijou exhibition in receptive territories and cities.  

Although not actually a product of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab responsible for Leviathan and last year's Locarno success Manakamana, The Iron Ministry shares the Lab's trademark aesthetic of uninflected, unadorned, you-are-there neo-verite immediacy. While an end title card reveals that the picture was actually shot between 2011 and 2013, Sniadecki cunningly edits the footage to create the impression of a single trip, origin and destination unspecified. His handheld, subjective camera wanders inquisitively from carriage to carriage, often eavesdropping on conversations which Sniadecki  fluent in Mandarin — sometimes joins in on, though his face is never shown.

Generally his approach is paradoxically both self-effacing and nosy, displaying an insatiable curiosity about the apparently mundane textures of the train's interiors as well as its passengers  shots of external landscapes through the windows are rare. Occasionally the sheer velocity of vehicular motion sees the image excitingly blur into chaos, like fleeting, avant-garde shorts that effortlessly conjure the dazzlingly abstract out of the quotidian and the concrete.

The first proper images we see are in bewilderingly close close-up, and it's only seven minutes in that we catch sight of a human face. The actual opening of the film is even more challenging, with three full minutes of black screen briefly interrupted with the title card  accompanied by the churningly rhythmic cacophony of mechanized transportation. In what is clearly an editorial decision — and a questionable one at that — much of the overheard dialogue remains unsubtitled: 18 minutes pass before those unskilled in Mandarin will know what's being said amid the hubbub.

But this withholding technique is actually a structural ploy, setting us up for a truly astonishing, deadpan-hilarious monologue delivered by a startlingly precocious kid who looks no older than 10 or 11. Brilliantly parodying Tannoy announcements, the budding stand-up enjoins his neighbors to behave in a recklessly dangerous and antisocial manner, to micturate and defecate with abandon "and throw trash all over the train."  

The showstopping bit of improv is the first of numerous instances where the film's subjects express mocking or skeptical attitudes toward authority figures, represented here by officious guards forever bothering folk about their tickets and ID cards and often receiving dismissively offhand responses.

Such aspects make it impossible to avoid reading The Iron Ministry (a title never mentioned or explained) as a sly microcosm of the nation: a mass of disparate people hurtling along at impressive speed — stops and even slow-downs are few and far between — with common purpose and the benefit of smoothly operating technology, albeit no chance of actually influencing the journey in a meaningful way.

Rather than exemplifying Communist uniformity, there are class-defined compartments on this train (or rather these trains), and Sniadecki is unambiguously much more interested in the chatter, opportunistic mercantile activity and lively chaos of the cheaper sectors than he in the hushed, underpopulated zones at the posh end, where he barely lingers at all. This stratification recalls another current example of how trains can inspire excellent cinema: Bong Joon-Ho's slam-bang, futuristic action picture Snowpiercer, though a much closer parallel is with Gina Telaroli's lesser-known, reflectively observational American variant, Traveling Light (2010).

These works join and embellish a remarkable lineage stretching all the way back through Wang Bing's gargantuan West of the Tracks and Josef von Sternberg's fanciful Shanghai Express to the very dawn of the medium: Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) and the Lumiere brothers' Train Arriving at La Ciotat (1895). Fast company indeed.

Production companies: Cinder Films
Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer/Editor: J.P. Sniadeck
Sales: Cinder Films (jpsniadecki@gmail.com)

No Rating, 82 minutes